The Golden Mean: A novel of Alexander the Great

Written by Annabel Lyon
Review by Mary F. Burns

Lyon’s debut historical novel is actually more about Aristotle than Alexander, although their lives were intimately entwined for a considerable period of time. This is no hagiography of either a great philosopher or a magnificent king, however: the flesh and blood reality of life in 3rd-century BCE Macedonia is evident in the offhand cruelty, the misogynistic culture, the plagues and illnesses, and the death-dealing wounds of battle that both protagonists face, with unequal amounts of courage and fortitude. The dialogue is quirkily modern at times but seems to fit. Aristotle is a very strange man who clearly suffers from bipolar syndrome, with the “depressive” part more present than the “manic” part, to his dismay. He wants nothing more than to be alone with his books, or out collecting specimens he can cut up and document, yet he’s always being driven into situations that require human contact, such as marriage and teaching. Alexander, on the other hand, knows he will be king one day, and chafes at any restraint; he wants to be with the army, at war. The prince who will be the conqueror of a huge part of the ancient world is passing strange, almost but not quite sociopathic, but also, as a boy, vulnerable and lonely.

The “philosophical” musings in the book are, in my opinion, cursory and not well developed, despite what the book jacket says. There are recognizable Aristotelian ideas, mainly as they contrast with Plato’s teachings, and I think the author tries to connect them to the reality of her characters’ world, but not always successfully. I have to say that the reading was hard going — at times the atmosphere was crude and unpleasant, and overall, it was not an enjoyable book, but it was very interesting and ultimately, I found it worthwhile.